Both are black. Both knew they wanted to write. Both grew up on Euclid Avenue in the heart of South Shore, a Chicago neighborhood known for its background music of gunshots and sirens.
But the similarities between Gabriel Bump and the antihero of his debut novel—Everywhere You Don’t Belong, due out February 2020 from Algonquin—end there. Bump’s nuclear family remains intact. Claude McKay Love’s abandoned him when he was a bewildered five. “My daughter’s not awful,” his grandmother says. “She’s just ridiculous.” Grandma loves Claude and believes in him—“Claude’s going to make a difference in this world,” she says. But, as he’s on the verge of escaping to college, she warns him: “The world is no place for a self-hating black boy.”
“Why won’t you let me leave?” Claude asks.
“I’ll let you leave,” she says. “And I’ll let you come right back when everything goes wrong.”
Anyone who grew up during the 1960s race riots has the names of certain places burned into their brains: Baltimore; Harlem; Newark; Watts; and, of course, Chicago. Claude is 14 when South Shore erupts. Bump wrote this chapter while in grad school, with the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in mind. Using the model of the Blackstone Rangers (a late-’60s/early-’70s Chicago street gang), Bump creates a gang called the Redbelters, led by a man named Big Columbus.
The race riot starts the way many do, with an unarmed person of color shot and killed by police. The boy was seen entering a home where he’d promised to feed a neighbor’s cats; he’s gunned down because he runs when the police arrive to investigate. Claude watches friends and neighbors, armed with frying pans and bats, get shot and trampled. Told in the first person, we see the riot through his innocent eyes. In sentences that are short and declarative—like bullets—Bump describes the action. He avoids the subjective, both here and throughout Everywhere, fueling his jackhammer prose.
Bump deploys stealth humor. The reader doesn’t see it coming—then it hits like an uppercut. In one scene, Claude escapes the riot by running for his life past the Howards, whose daughter “had bad breath and said gum made her feel normal.” The speaker at Claude’s high school graduation thanks friends and family, saying that, without them, “she would’ve committed suicide by jumping off a medium-size apartment complex.” And in a scene the reader hopes will turn sexy, he writes, “She held me closer. I put my chin in her belly button.”
While studying at the University of Missouri in 2011, one of Bump’s professors encouraged him to look for a program with a stronger writing department. He moved back to Chicago the next year, transferring to the School of the Art Institute, where Everywhere took root. (The book’s second chapter, “Fog,” was Bump’s undergraduate thesis.) He went from there to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he got his MFA in 2017 and completed the book. One of his teachers, Jeff Parker, author of Ovenman, thought Bump’s work was so extraordinary that he passed it along to his agent at Trident Media Group, Ellen Levine, who suspected it was a perfect fit for her colleague, Alexa Stark.
“I was completely blown away by the staccato prose and the tender, wry voice.” Stark says. “It succeeded as a portrait of boyhood and racial politics.”
Bump experimented with five different endings before he finished the final chapter, “Where We Belong,” to say exactly what he wanted it to say. Stark rushed the manuscript off to 12 publishers. Kathy Pories, executive editor at Algonquin Press, was stunned. “It was unlike anything I’d ever read: funny, absurd and tragic all at the same time,” she says. “The book is stylistically smart. Bump injects humor into scary situations. He jumps right into his character’s lives and what it means to be a black man in America, how it is. That’s important territory right now. All this told us this was a voice that was going somewhere.”
Pories moved fast. She put together a preempt offer—a two-book deal for six figures. Stark set up a conversation between Pories and Bump, both of whom liked what they heard.
“I couldn’t have dreamt of such a deal happening,” Bump says.
Bump is currently teaching two courses, on short fiction and literature, at the University of Buffalo. Next semester, thanks to his advance, he’ll be teaching one. A manuscript for his second novel, about two college professors in Massachusetts forming an underground society, is on his editor’s desk. He’s begun work on a third, about a young man moving to Buffalo. Everywhere You Don’t Belong has a film agent on board. Marketing will include an eight-city tour, national TV and radio interviews, and national print and online campaigns. Bump is 28 years old.
“Every step of the way and even now,” he says. “I wonder if I can do it.”
He already has.
Patricia Volk is a novelist and short story writer and the author of two memoirs, Stuffed and Shocked.